When Colm O’Neill talks about the history of the building Doss House – his new whisky bar in The Rocks – is in, he’s noticeably delighted.

“It’s an unreal spot. In 170 years it’s been a bootmaker’s workshop, [a] pub and an opium den,” O’Neill says in a dulcet-toned Irish brogue. “It was also a doss house, which is a place where tramps and prostitutes used to pay a shilling to bed down for the night.”

An attitude of delight and positivity is important when it comes to opening a bar in a tightly regulated, heritage-listed building. Doss House spans four small below-street-level rooms and two courtyards, and the nearly two-centuries-old sandstone walls are strictly protected. “If you go to a normal bar, the shelves and cabinets are fixed to the walls,” he says. “We’re not allowed to touch any wall, not with joinery, not with hanging pictures. We had to get creative.”

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It’s kismet then that O’Neill’s business partner Eoin Daniels owns Top Knot, a carpentry and joinery business that’s done work for the Opera House, The Clock and The Old Clare Hotel. Daniels’s solutions to fulfilling heritage requirements are both ingenious and beautiful. Whisky cabinets made from elegant oak and glass are backless to allow the sandstone to breathe, and the back bar is built away from the walls and is affixed to the floor instead.

Each room of Doss House honours a different narrative in the building’s history, from the dockside merchants who once drank at the pub, to the “dragon-chasers” who smoked opium in what has been dubbed the Ung Quoy’s Den. The dark, cosy room has orange banquette seating and a painting of the eight immortals of Chinese mythology hanging from the ceiling.

There are 150 whisky options, including Melbourne distiller Starward’s wine-cask malt and a small collection of rare Japanese and Scottish whiskies. The dark spirit forms the basis of many of Doss House’s cocktails, such as The Dusky Scotchman, named after a famous arrest that happened at the venue 140 years ago. “It’s a tasty little drink, made with a 10-year-old Laphroaig, Branca Menta [a bitter amaro liqueur] and honey,” says O’Neill.

Doss House’s succinct food menu includes charcuterie and cheese platters that pair well with the drinks. The smoked wallaby, Bay of Fires cheddar, local honey and the wild boar salami on the Aussie platter go particularly well with the Freycinet pinot noir, or if you ask O’Neill, a pint of Guinness, which Doss House has on tap.

Doss House
77–79 George Street, The Rocks Sydney
(02) 9565 1009

Tue to Sat 12pm–2am
Sun 12pm–midnight